Questions & Quandaries

Questions & Quandaries
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THE MYTHICAL LAND OF EXPERTS

Q: I''ve read many articles in your magazine and others that advise freelance magazine writers to use quotes from experts on their given subject, but none of the articles tell writers how to go about doing that. Where do writers find experts? How do you approach them? How do you obtain permission to use quotes? This can be intimidating for a new writer.
—Theresa Fort

A: Next to cold, hard facts, experts play the most pivotal role in providing journalists with information. They hold knowledgeable opinions that can verify and validate information in the article to readers. And, while at times it may feel like experts are as hidden as Waldo, they really are easier to find than you might think.

Experts are everywhere—universities, doctor''s offices, Taco Bell. But sometimes you have to do a little digging. Don''t be afraid to hop onto Google or Yahoo and search your topic, clicking on the top 15 to 20 links that come up and keeping an eye out for anyone who could fit your needs.

Another valuable tool is ProfNet.com, a free service that connects journalists with sources. How it works: You propose your question, and ProfNet sends it to more than 14,000 experts, attempting to find people who know your subject. These folks are typically happy to help because it gives them more exposure.

Now, when approaching an expert, it''s important to be upfront with her. In any phone or e-mail conversation, immediately state your name, your association ("I''m a Boise-based freelance writer"), your topic and deadline (if you have one). Also, let the expert know that you may use quotes from the interview in your article. If you send an e-mail, let the person know that you''re willing to conduct the interview however she prefers—e-mail, phone, fax, in person.

Don''t be intimidated by the interviewing process. It''s much easier than it sounds. And, at worst, the expert says no and you move on—or place a curse on him. Not that I''ve ever done that ...

FUN WITH NUMBERS

Q: Sometimes I see numbers spelled out (nine), and at other times I see them in numeric form (9). Which is correct? —Kevin Tracy

A: Most writers—including me—took on this artistic profession for three reasons: We''re creative, we love to read and, most important, we want to avoid numbers at all costs. Yet somehow, even in writing, numbers have found a way to sneak back into our lives.

There are several rules of thought on how to handle writing numbers, but the most common is pretty simple. Spell out numbers zero through nine, and use the numeric symbols for numbers 10 and up. I bought eight candy bars from the vending machine. I average eating 29 candy bars per month.

There are some exceptions to the rule. For example, spell out all numbers that begin a sentence. Forty-seven-thousand contestants were turned down for "American Idol." Eleven were selected. Of course, there''s an exception to the exception: Don''t spell out calendar years, even at the front end of a sentence. 1997 was the year I met my wife. And if you don''t feel like writing those long, awkward-looking numbers, just recast the sentence. "American Idol" turned down 47,000 contestants. I met my wife in the magical year of 1997.

Also, there are other instances where the under-10/over-10 rule doesn''t apply. Always use figures for ages of people ("He''s 9 years old"), dates (February 14), monetary amounts ($8), percentages (14 percent) and ratios (2-to-1).

Again, this is a style issue, and other sources may suggest different ways of handling numbers. So please, no hate mail. And let''s agree not to talk about numbers for the rest of the day—they make my head hurt.

THE MOST COMMONLY ASKED QUESTION

Q: How do I get published?
—more people than you''d think

A: If I had a one-paragraph answer for this, I''d be a billionaire—and in the Bahamas. Unfortunately, I don''t.

My best advice is to study the craft, write a great book and, of course, read Writer''s Digest.

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